A group of groundbreaking, international scientists called the ALPHA team successfully manipulated antimatter and measured it for the first time in history. The team nudged anti-hydrogen atoms using a tool that emitted a microwave stream.
Last June 2011, Jeffrey Hangst, of Denmark's Aarhus University and the spokesman for ALPHA team, explained to the Telegraph the nature of the accomplishment: "We can keep the anti-hydrogen atoms trapped for 1,000 seconds. This is long enough to begin to study them—even with the small number that we can catch so far."
Now the team has managed to interact with antimatter and move it as reported in their study that appears in the journal Nature Physics.
ALPHA ran the experiment at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (at CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland.
"We’ve demonstrated that we can probe the internal structure of the anti-hydrogen atom and we’re very excited about that. We now know that it’s possible to design experiments to make detailed measurements of antiatoms."
The reason the breakthrough is momentous has to do with the great mystery of antimatter that's been plaguing physicists since the discovery of its existence.
When the Big Bang occurred some 14 billion years in the past, matter and antimatter existed in equal amounts. Since the two were so well-balanced, why didn't they cancel each other out?
The reason is that Nature somehow seemed to prefer matter over antimatter and because of that matter now dominates the universe.
The matter-antimatter asymmetry is still one of the greatest puzzles that haunts particle physics researchers.
The experiments conducted by ALPHA at CERN are progressing step-by-step towards solving the riddle of the asymmetrical outcome. Measuring the anti-hydrogen atoms is a giant step.
"We have made a measurement," proclaimed Hangst. "Precision-wise, it doesn't compete with matter, but it's the only one that's ever been done on antimatter."
The difficulty researchers have faced is the very nature of antimatter tends to cancel itself out if it meets matter. The two annihilate each other in a burst of energy.
To reach the stage where it was possible to manipulate the antimatter, the team first had to trap it. They achieved that on June 5, 2011 by using a magnetic chamber to trap and suspend the antimatter, allowing them to investigate its nature for minutes instead of mere fractions of a second.
That monumental feat led to the current triumph of actually manipulating the anti-hydrogen atoms without destroying them.
“Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe and we understand its structure extremely well." Hangst said. "Now we can finally begin to coax the truth out of anti-hydrogen. Are they different? We can confidently say that time will tell.”
Once the riddle of the disparity is solved, further research can begin to glean all the properties of antimatter locked inside. That could lead to new sources of energy and a myriad of foundation technologies.
Futurists and theorists have dreamed of using matter-antimatter engines to power vast machinery, change the orbits of planets, even use it to propel advanced ships to the stars. The famous Enterprise—the starship featured in the television series Star Trek—is powered by matter-antimatter engines that warp space, making interstellar travel more convenient than the treks of 19th Century pioneers crossing the Great Midwestern Plains.
On the other hand, matter-antimatter weapons could theoretically be more powerful—and more deadly—than thermonuclear bombs.
All advances carry risk, and all technology is a dual-edged sword.
Regardless, the quest for knowledge pushes forward.